In this age when anyone wielding a smartphone with a Twitter or Instagram account can become a self-proclaimed gourmand, foodies often rave about small, independently owned restaurants and snub chain food stores. That's too bad because they would miss out on some of the best udon in Japan. Marugame Seimen is a huge chain with some 800 branches all over Japan (the location specified with this article is the Shibuya branch, but there are 65 branches in Tokyo alone).
Outside the restaurant, the standard menu is posted and what struck me is the price. You can have kamaage udon -- freshly boiled udon placed directly into a wooden container -- Marugame Seimen's top recommendation (it's actually part of the restaurant name) for only ¥290! Food snobs might use the price as an indicator of quality and here they would be wrong.
When you enter any Marugame Seimen restaurant, the first thing that greets you is an open kitchen right in the middle of the restaurant. At the branch I went to, I saw big sacks of flour stacked in one corner. In this open setup, you can watch how udon is made from its three basic ingredients (flour, water, salt) into the appetizingly thick noodles with characteristic square shape and flat edges that is Sanuki udon, Marugame Seimen's specialty. Noodle making machines help process the dough and cut the noodles, which are then boiled in big vats of water only when a customer orders, never before. The open kitchen is where customers are presented with the "drama of cooking".
Freshly made udon at Marugame Seimen is perfectly chewy all the time. I've tried their cold udon (I highly recommend the cold oroshi shoyu udon with a slice of lime on top) and udon in hot soup (nothing like curry udon on a cold rainy day) and everything I've had has been perfectly satisfying.
Ordering is easy at their self-service counters. Pick your udon, wait for it to be cooked and served on your tray. Select from an assortment of deep fried items like vegetables and seafood to enjoy your udon with and pay at the cashier. Enjoy unlimited condiments like ginger, chopped onions, wasabi, hot dashi soup, and tempura dipping sauce. Tea is complimentary.